Fast Team Formation

On the way home last night we drove past a group of people on the side of the road. It almost wasn’t worth a second glance, except that some were standing and others were kneeling on the footpath, with one vehicle parked the wrong way to the curb. A second glance revealed someone lying on the ground in the middle of the group. We stopped and I ran over with a son to see if there was anything we could do to help. Half of my kids are active St John Cadets, and I took the most senior one in the vehicle with me.

It was a young woman lying on the ground. She had been found face down on the footpath having a seizure. By the time we got there, there were about ten people in all. The group had done everything right – they were on the phone to the ambulance service, they had put her in the recovery position, a couple of them were talking to her, and they had managed to learn her name. When we arrived one member of the group asked if we had a blanket in our vehicle – which we did – and a nice warm one at that. I ran back to get it and we covered the young woman. She was dressed lightly for running in the evening, and with lying on the footpath she was cold and getting colder. For another ten minutes two members kept talking to her, one kept talking to the ambulance service (“they’re coming”), and others went over the facts we knew. Once the ambulance arrived, the details of the situation were repeated to the ambulance officers, the young woman was handed over to their care, and the group disbanded.

Complete strangers mobilised to help someone in distress. No one gave a team pre-talk. No one gave out roles. No one wrote a team compact. The need was obvious, and as the seconds ticked by, each person used whatever skills and insights they had to help the young woman and ensure everyone was working together to help her. Needs that become obvious to one person were verbalised to see if another team member had a way of solving the problem. A scan of the road revealed a couple of vehicles in the way where the ambulance was likely to stop, and these were moved before they caused a problem.

Twenty minutes saw the formation and disbanding of a team, without any direction, discussion, planning, or strategising. Humanity and concern for the individual drew everyone together. A clear vision, a clear need, a sense of ones own abilities and a willingness to serve the group towards the realisation of the vision were all that was needed in such a situation. Team formation doesn’t aways work so smoothly, but everything clicked last night.

Ever Present Absent

They say to be careful what you wish for. Back around 2000 I wrote a report for Ferris Research on the emergence and growing adoption of wireless handheld devices, and how they allowed people to recapture moments of lost productivity throughout the day. Back then the majority of phones had 12 keys and a postage stamp sized screen, and people had to triple-tap to text. And you could call people; that was a thing. There was an advantage to being different, to having a device with a full keyboard and bigger screen that enabled interaction with better systems, which at that time was primarily email. We have come so far in 17 years, and yet we have lost so much along the way.

– The freedom to roam unhindered and untethered, to explore the world without having to check in, check up, hashtag, and share.

– The freedom to think. Privately. For extended periods of time.

– The time and space to explore a topic quietly without posting about the fact we are exploring it, which makes it a noisy and ineffective exploration, because the performance demands undermine the learning needs.

– The ability to meet up with others, without relying on micro-scheduling. “Where are you?” “I’m outside the café.” (Looking up) “Oh, yes, I see you.” The ability to give micro-updates on movements and time of arrival has devoured our patience; a 5-minute delay in someone arriving without notification is now cause for catastrophic concern.

Everywhere I look now I see people using “wireless handheld devices” (what an old-fashioned term) to engage with the Ever-Present Absent. With someone who isn’t really “there,” apart from their glowing representation through the pixels on a smart device. The light and life that could be shared with others physically nearby is sucked into the vortex of the device – and shared in pixellated form with other people physically far removed but virtually all-demanding. A tap, a like, a share, a poke, a comment. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

A grandmother commented to me about a recent breakfast with two grandsons. “The three of us had breakfast together this morning. I was on my iPad. And both of them were on their phones.” This is the Ever-Absent Present engaged with the Ever-Present Absent.

Our devices are better, but we have lost so much along the way.

We are forgetting how to be present with others, a state of being that’s much more than just existing in the same physical place. The ability to have a conversation without picking up devices, and without relying on carefully crafted sentences that give us time to portray ourselves in “the right way.” We are increasingly unwilling to expose the messy reality of our humanness, preferring to edit out anything that’s less than picture perfect. Sherry Turkle has explored this in her recent book on Reclaiming Conversation.

We are losing the ability to do the hard work of learning, growing, and developing mastery in a topic, prioritising endless pointless chatter over knuckling down and doing the work. Our brains are fried from the never-ending interactional demands; we have trained ourselves to rest momentarily on a topic and drink its easy sugar, and then move quickly before the going gets too hard. Cal Newport explores the costs and consequences in his book Deep Work.

We are paying the price in worsening mental health and decreased wellbeing. A study published earlier this year concluded that:

… while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.

And we are doing this to ourselves! And it’s not just Facebook.

While the emergence of wireless handheld devices was a pressing issue back in 2000, today’s pressing issues are about learning to get on with other people, recovering focus, rebuilding attention, and carving out spaces of disconnection for creativity and contribution beyond the microsecond.

Let’s start today. Do less with the Ever-Present Absent. Stop being the Ever-Absent Present. Put. Your. Phone. Away. Be present with the people in front of you in the real-world, not the fantasy world we have inhabited for too long.

From Intranets to DEX in 2018

The team at Step Two have re-branded their annual Intranets conference to the Digital Employee Experience conference, or DEX. I have attended Intranets three times. DEX 2018 will be held in Sydney on June 6-8, 2018.

Digital employee experience considers every touchpoint between staff and their employer. Intranets continue to play a critical role as the enterprise front door (and more), increasingly sitting within a broader digital workplace. To accelerate progress, this conference brings together intranet teams, digital teams, internal comms, IT and HR.

It’s a hard thing hitting the right level with the name of a conference. As was said of eCommerce, the presence of the “e” becomes irrelevant after a while. It should be just “commerce,” not something managed differently from the rest of what the organisation does. Same with DEX. “Digital” employee experiences are a sub-part of the wider “employee experiences” approach, which would also include the physical aspects of work (building design, interior layout (work spaces, collaboration spaces, meeting spaces, etc.), and office furniture) plus the organisational and cultural aspects of work (career development, mentoring, and leadership). But trying to get all that in a two-day event is too hard – the focus would be diffuse and the topics shallow. Hence, I think the new name is a good step up.

I wish the Step Two team all the best with the planning for the new conference – pulling along all the good things of the previous seven conferences, and incorporating new ideas into the new superstructure.

The Power of Outsiders

A recent Art of Manliness podcast Doing More With Less, with guest Scott Sonenshein, talked about the difference between chasing and stretching. It’s a good discussion, with some great ideas throughout the 43 minutes. I’ve listened to it three times.

At 20m55s into the podcast, there’s an insightful exchange about outsiders. Some notes:

An outsider doesn’t know a lot about the problem domain in which they are asked to work in.
We assume that we should have the people who know the most on our team.
The research shows that the more someone knows in a given scientific domain, the less likely they are to be able to solve a problem.
e.g., a biologist is more likely to be able to solve a chemistry problem than a chemist, and vice versa.
When we have deep knowledge in an area, we focus and try to solve problems in traditional ways.
When we have less information, we tend to import different perspectives and not be blinded by expertise.
Breadth of experience is more important for complex problems.

Brett (the host) and Scott go on to talk about some of the approaches that can be used to get an outsider’s perspective.

This perspective is very similar to what Greg talked about in his recent Inc. article, We’re Entering a New Era of Mass Collaboration (emphasis added):

When Alph Bingham first began his career as a research scientist in the late 70s, he immediately realized it would be much different than graduate school. As a student, he and 20 others were working on the same problems and coming up with varied approaches, but as a professional scientist he was mostly on his own.

By the late 90s, the Internet was becoming a transformative force and Bingham, now a senior executive at Eli Lilly, saw an opportunity to do something new. He envisioned a platform that would work like “Linux with a bounty” by putting problems that his company had been unable to solve on the web and offering rewards to anyone who could come up with an answer.

The program, called InnoCentive, was an immediate success and Eli Lilly spun it out as an independent company. To date, it has solved hundreds of problems so difficult that many considered them to be unsolvable. In fact, one study found that about a third of the problems posted on Innocentive — many of which had been around for years or even decades — are solved.

The key to InnoCentive’s success has to do with an observation Bingham and his team noticed early on. The solutions almost never came from the field in which they arose. So, for example, chemistry problems were rarely solved by chemists. Yet by opening up the problem to others working in adjacent fields, such as biologists and physicists, they became more tractable.

Outsiders. Different perspectives. Better together. Complex problems. That’s a huge part of the why of collaboration.

Acknowledging the Work of Others

Writing for HBR Online, last year Amy Gallo wrote an article entitled How to Respond When Someone Takes Credit for Your Work:

There’s nothing more infuriating than someone taking credit for your work. We’ve all had this happen at one point or another: you share an idea with a colleague and then hear him repeat it in a meeting; you stay late to finish a presentation yet your team member accepts all the praise; you lead a long overdue project to completion and your boss tells the higher-ups it was his doing. How should you handle these situations? Is it okay to speak up right then and there? Or should you keep quiet? And how can you make sure that you get the credit you deserve in the future?

I was in a meeting today where the lead presenter did the total opposite of this, and provided an almost perfect case study of how to appropriately acknowledge the work of others. It was his presentation, he was reporting on something he was responsible for, and most of the people he acknowledged weren’t even at the meeting. Here’s what I noticed:

1. His second slide listed the people who had been involved in the project, including their contact details. Most were consultants. He acknowledged what they’d done right at the beginning of his talk – visually and verbally – not in small print on the final slide.

2. At various points of his presentation he called out the specific contributions of specific people, and how he’d handed the workstream over to them to complete. For example, on mentioning the use of design workshops to shape the information architecture for the new intranet, an external consultant had been asked to run the sessions. Actually that consultant was in the room, and was noted by name.

3. He wrote the presentation without input from the external consultants. It wasn’t a joint presentation where the others had to ask to be named – he did it because he believed it was the right thing to do.

4. For one of the consultants involved, the presenter called the night before the meeting to check if they were coming. He didn’t say that he was going to mention their contribution; he just wanted to ensure they were in the room. The consultant came without prior knowledge of what was going to be said.

Wow, just wow.

It could have so easily been portrayed differently, and no one outside of the project would ever have known.

Integrity. Honesty. Collaborative ethos. Sharing the credit. Acknowledging the contributions of others. Humility. Beautiful to see.

Conor on Having the Wrong Mission

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Conor reshapes the classic story of three men building a cathedral:

In the distance I see the construction site of a future cathedral. I approach the site and see three men laying bricks.


I approach the first man and ask “what are you doing?” He says “I am laying bricks.”


I approach the second man and ask “what are you doing?” He says “I am the world’s best stonecutter.”


I approach the third man and ask “what are you doing?” He says “I am building a cathedral.”

The change is the answer of the second man, and Conor then analyses the danger of being focused on being the best. While it has some good aspects, Conor argues that it is not a mission:

Deciding to be the best that you can be at your job is a good thing. However, it is not a mission. It is not linked to an outcome that improves society.


It is possible to be the best stonecutter and allow a terrible cathedral to be built around you. It is possible to be the best stonecutter and say nothing when you watch the plumber do a poor job with cheap tools. It is possible to be the best stonecutter and watch the project fail around you and walk away saying “it wasn’t my job to look at finances, it wasn’t my job to make sure plumbing was done well… I did my bit”. This is why it is dangerous for people on your team to limit their mission to being the best at their job.

I like this line of thinking, and the emphasis on taking joint responsibility for the bigger game (project, initiative, workstream). And therefore I wonder if the answer of the third man should be changed too in order to reflect this greater responsibility. For example, something like:

We are building a cathedral.” (while gesturing around to the other workers on the building site)
I am building a cathedral, in collaboration with the other workers you see here.”

Collaboration and Culture Analytics: Answering Key Questions During a Merger or Acquisition

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Two of the scenario areas that Dorje and Sam covered in the recent ClearBox Consulting Intranet Analytics report were Collaboration and Culture. These are described as follows (on page 10):

Collaboration is often a major strategic goal for organisations. This scenario asks whether the analytics tool can be used to provide a collaboration dashboard for the senior leadership team. Can the dashboard support better collaboration going forward by revealing the names of teams which are exemplars of collaboration and teams where more action is required to improve practices?

Measuring culture is not straightforward. How do you define culture? And even if you have an agreed definition then the numbers associated with it are often indirect and open to interpretation. However, measuring culture change remains a common goal for analytics. In this scenario we imagine an organisation which is trying to improve their staff engagement so a yearly survey is carried out. But can your product help the HR manager see changes in staff engagement on a weekly or monthly basis?

These two analytics areas were of particular interest to me in light of a recent conversation with the collaboration manager from a global firm. His firm is a SharePoint and Office 365 customer, and his firm has just been acquired by another firm that is also an Office 365 customer. Going through the decision process on which messaging and collaboration tool to use after a merger or acquisition has a long and storied history in the industry, but at least on the face of it, since both are using Office 365, the path forward is simple.

And yet there are some significant areas to think through. For example:

1. Does the acquired firm simply migrate their tenant to the tenant of the acquiring firm?

2. In this case, the acquired firm has been using Office 365 for longer than the acquirer, and according to the collaboration manager, is using Office 365 better than the acquirer. The acquired has more maturity in collaboration practice than the acquirer.

3. In this case, the level of activity in certain Yammer groups is more advanced in the acquired firm than in the acquirer.

4. In this case, the acquired firm has better content organisation and practices in SharePoint than the acquiring firm.

Notwithstanding the technical challenges of merging Office 365 tenants, or migrating content from one to the other, there is a great need for good collaboration and culture analytics under this scenario to answer the following questions:

1. Which teams, groups, and communities are exhibiting the best collaboration and culture in the systems they are using currently?

2. What is the relative positioning of their best collaboration and culture practitioners compared with ours?

3. Looking at the totality of knowledge content and collaboration practice in each Office 365 tenant, which tenant is the stronger one to bet on going forward?

4. I imagine a future when part of the due diligence of acquiring another firm means getting a collaboration and culture analytics report on its usage of Office 365. The acquiring firm has the right to run an analytics engine over the tenant of the acquisition target, and summary analytics data is presented to highlight areas of strength and weakness.

In today’s knowledge economy where much of the value of a firm is in the collaboration, culture, and knowledge practices of staff, breaking those practices by enforcing a poorly scoped strategy of getting everyone at the acquired firm to start again in the new firm is a recipe for value decimation. We need real, solid data on what is working well – not just for the sake of generating pretty dashboards and giving ourselves a pat on the back – but because ongoing business depends on it.

On the culture analytics area, my interest in this dates to 2006 when I started an doctoral program that morphed into a focus on the use of speech acts in discussions. In today’s language I would say that I was looking for a way of making explicit the cultural quality of collaboration. I had to give away my doctoral studies so never finished the program, but I think this area still offers a fruitful avenue for exploring culture through analytics.

Interesting times. For more on intranet analytics, make sure you check out the Intranet Analytics report from ClearBox Consulting in the UK. And if you are involved in a merger or acquisition, consider how you might use analytics information to bolster your assertions about the power of collaboration and culture in your firm.

Let’s Have Another SharePoint Failure!

The third step of taking a strategic approach to the use of Office 365 focuses on creating the right organisational context for achieving value. This is founded on the principle that any particular thing exists within a wider environment, and the wider environment either enables or constrains that thing:
– the wheel doesn’t work without the car which doesn’t work without good roads and good driving disciplines.
– the fish swims in water.
– the use of SharePoint takes place within a group of people working at an organisation that has a particular culture

That’s the principle, and there’s a set of important disciplines to line up in order to create the right context, such as executive support, business engagement, and governance. I have explored quite a bit of this in my book Collaboration Roadmap, although by design that book doesn’t have a specific Office 365 focus.

Here’s a set of statements about a specific organisation:

1. The firm is moving to Office 365, from an on-premises Exchange, Lync, and SharePoint environment.

2. The firm has been using SharePoint for many years, and has had three major SharePoint deployments over the past decade.

(all good so far, but now for the context …)

3. All three of the SharePoint deployments have been considered a failure. Among other things, for example, out-of-date sites are never archived / deleted / tidied up, resulting in a data sprawl, and secondly, key people refuse to use SharePoint.

4. The current SharePoint deployment follows a heavily customised design, using add-on products from a SharePoint firm. The design has languished in recent years, becoming inflexible and hated by staff.

5. The move to Office 365 is viewed by management as a “lift-and-shift,” although technically that’s not possible given the current customised design. And the current design is out-of-date anyway.

6. No one has made an attempt to engage with key parts of the business around their use of SharePoint. It is actively resisted by many, if not rejected outright.

7. Teams that do similar work across the firm do not talk together, share ideas, or learn from each other. Although the requirements of the work are exactly the same, the firm is divided into specific geographical silos, and there is no discussion across the silos. No one cares what the other teams are doing.

8. No one in executive management champions the cultural tenets of collaboration, sharing, openness, and transparency.

9. Any attempt by the SharePoint administrator to flag fundamental issues with the approach to moving to Office 365 are dismissed at worst, or put on a risks register at best.

I could go on, but … that context is not right nor ready for SharePoint or Office 365 or any “collaboration” tool. The current project will be a failure, and the tool will be blamed.

What’s actually needed – regardless of whether the tool is SharePoint, Office 365, Jive, Google, IBM Connections, or anything else – is an audit of the organisational readiness for collaboration and sharing as cultural tenets, followed by an assessment of what tools, capabilities and approaches would fit within that assessment. In the above, for example, there is a critical need for someone in executive management – ideally the CEO – to champion the cultural tenets, to create the organisational context that expects and requires cross-firm sharing, that puts cultural emphasis on being on the same journey. Without this the attempt to move to the cloud is merely a request for yet another failed SharePoint project.

I used to offer a specific audit service, but now that type of assessment is part of my Planning Success consulting service.

Fully Distributed Team + Face-to-Face Communication

Andrew shares the thinking and practices of Parse.ly’s fully distributed team, looking at the history underlying his way of managing the firm, the role of face-to-face communication, and how to work day-to-day in a distributed environment. It’s a good case study, conveying some great ideas.

Here’s the piece about the importance / role / benefits of face-to-face communication:

The biggest thing missing from fully distributed teams is true face-to-face communication. There are a lot of subjective qualities to this kind of communication — such as body language — that cause the brain to react slightly differently than other forms, such as written or even video conference. Having a face-to-face “kick-off” meeting among team members is critical to make the distributed team work smoothly. Not only does this humanize the relationships between team members in a way that audio/video simply doesn’t (seemingly for a lack of verisimilitude), but it also encourages some friendship and bonding relationships to form that are a bit tougher to facilitate via pure digital tools.

At Parse.ly, we have held several team retreats since our founding. We cook together, drink together, play poker, and hold competitions. We also have intense brainstorming sessions and even do a little free-form programming and hacking with one another. I call it a “workcation” because though everyone is working, everyone is also very relaxed and we try to pick backdrop environments that are vacation-like.

The retreats also engender a sense of empathy among team members. For example, they learn each other’s favorite sports teams, discuss books they’ve read recently, or share favorite productivity tips. These are details that come up more rarely in our “virtual office” because of the lack of idle moments — elevator rides, walks to lunch, etc. — that tend to occupy this role in co-located teams.

Do People in Virtual Teams Need Face Time?

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Yesterday I presented a condensed version of the driving effective use workshop, albeit without a specific Office 365 focus. The “masterclass” was presented online to 10-12 people in Australia.

After setting the scene (“What Does Effective Use Look Like?”), one of the questions from a delegate in the discussion was about virtual teams, and whether face-to-face (in-person) time was necessary.

My answer was that virtual teams are increasingly common, but no one that I know of who advises firms on virtual teams recommends the complete absence of face-to-face / in-person time as a virtual team design strategy (and in my work I don’t either). Put another way, while virtual teams make a lot of sense in many situations, and are increasingly used across the world, high-performance is more likely where team members are able to meet in-person on a semi-regular basis. Some firms do a six-monthly team meeting at a given location, others stretch it out to a year (which in my view is a bit too long), while some can have teams meeting together on a more regular basis. But the overall design recommendation is virtual most of the time, with periodic face-to-face interactions (in-person, not by video conferencing) at least twice a year.

Actually, back in 2008 I wrote a whole series on virtual teams, called the A-Z of Virtual Teams (although I only did 17 of the letters at the time). One of the letters I did write though was called V is for Visiting Team Members, which is in the same concept stream as the question above. That “V” advice still stands.